Here’s a reverse trivia question for the readers of this blog: Name a song dedicated to a relative of the blogger?
OK, there might be more than one answer to that. But to the best of my (admittedly limited) knowledge, the answer is — apropos to where I was on vacation last week. (Full disclosure: I am into genealogy.)
That would be Cape Cod and Martha’s Vineyard, parts of Massachusetts where whaling was a way of life a two centuries ago. And the trivia answer is about a whaling venture that did not end well.
The song is “Nantucket Sleighride,” from the 1971 album of the same name by Mountain. The album/song name is a reference to the phenomenon experienced by crew members of the whaling ships of the sailing era, politically incorrect as it may sound in these enlightened times.
The whales would be harpooned from a smaller boat launched from the sailing ships, and rowed by crew members into range. Once harpooned, the giant sea mammals would attempt to escape, towing the rowboat and its occupants rapidly — a “sleighride" for the whalers, many of whom came from the island of Nantucket.
Many of them also came from Martha’s Vineyard, the other large island off Cape Cod, from whence some of my ancestors came. One of those coming from Nantucket was Owen Coffin, a fifth cousin five times removed, but somewhat more closely related because both of his parents were cousins.
Coffin, to whom Mountain’s second album is dedicated, like many of the whalers was in his teens when he took ship in 1819 aboard the Essex. The whaler was captained by George Pollard Jr., also my fifth cousin five times removed; several other crew members may have been relatives as well.
(I thought perhaps that Mountain’s lead guitarist, Leslie West, had a connection to the Owen Coffin story, and to me; West is a common name amongst my Cape Cod cousins. But West wasn’t Leslie’s birth name — he’s a New Yorker, and Jewish, it turns out.)
The Essex had been considered a lucky ship up to that point, but that good fortune turned bad early in what would be its final voyage. A squall two days out of port damaged the ship and three of its whaling boats, so it was already ill-prepared when it arrived in the Pacific Ocean hunting grounds.
Not that an undamaged whaling ship would be prepared for what the crew claimed happened to the Essex. A large sperm whale rammed the ship’s bow, and it sank before the crew members could put much in the way of provisions in the undamaged whaling boats.
The Essex was thousands of miles from land when it sank, and the crew made that even farther because some feared that the nearest islands were occupied by cannibals. Turned out their boats were occupied by cannibals; the provisions they saved from the Essex ran out, and the survivors began eating their mates who died from hunger and thirst.
The accidental dead soon were not enough, and the survivors were drawing straws to decide who would be killed and eaten — and who would kill them. Owen Coffin was one of the unlucky ones, and accepted his fate despite the fact that the captain — also his cousin — tried to intervene on his behalf.
Six other members of the Essex’s crew were cannibalized before the eight survivors were finally rescued. One of those survivors, First Mate Owen Chase, wrote a book about their ordeal — and in case the story sounds a bit familiar, his book influenced Herman Melville’s classic novel, “Moby-Dick.”
The title cut of Mountain’s album, of course, has nothing much to do with that story, other than a mention of going in search of “the mighty sperm whale.” It’s mostly a song about a whaler leaving his girlfriend, or maybe wife, behind: “Goodbye, little Robin-Marie/Don’t try following me/Don’t cry, little Robin-Marie/‘Cause you know I'm coming home soon.”
There are a few references in the lyrics to life on board a sailing ship of the whaling variety: “Starbuck's sharpening his harpoon/The black man is playing his tune/An old salt's sleeping his watch away/He’ll be drunk again before noon.”
Nor are the other songs on the LP themed such that it could be considered a concept album. There’s lots of searing, soaring Leslie West guitar, and driving Felix Pappalardi bass, though; the vocals, as in most of Mountain’s work, are not the group’s strong suit.
(Mountain had a larger impact on The Music than its eight studio albums — only two of which went gold — might indicate. Pappalardi was an influential studio dude, producing albums by Jesse Colin Young, the Youngbloods, Cream (including the classics “Disraeli Gears” and “Wheels of Fire”), Jack Bruce and Hot Tuna. Drummer Corky Laing, West and Bruce formed a trio which had some success.)
A teenaged whaler who ended up being the main course is an unusual choice for a rock album dedication. But it was interesting to Muse upon Owen Coffin’s fate while in the area where he grew up and worked, while feeling a connection to him and his story.